Today, because I happen to have found it last night, and because it still makes me smile, I bring you a bit of creative non-fiction from five years ago.
In Mississippi, the Eastern Gray Squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis, exists superfluously, a peripheral scampering on any given day. Most people simply accept it as inevitable, going through life oblivious to the squirrelish scuttlings up oaks that herald all passers-by. The squirrel seems to get most attention from restless dogs and cats – and from similarly restless people.
These people are always on the look-out for something to break the monotony of their days and companions. One moment they are lazily sprawled on a chair or engaged in enlightened conversation; the next, a gray tail flirts from some tree or lawn, and they grow tense and silent. They are the squirrel-chasers.
The squirrel-chasers I have encountered are boys in their late teens, college students who require physical activity to balance and enhance their mental busyness. Their squirrel-chasing propensity first manifested itself in a feline attentiveness to motions in the trees; soon they were hurling apple cores and dinner rolls at the arboreal rodents, seldom hitting though usually successfully startling the creatures. Startling from a distance quickly lost its glamour; the boys’ fingers itched to feel fur, and mischievous minds ran rife with the potential of live squirrels deposited indoors – in the cafeteria for instance.
Twirling his keys on a lanyard nearly as long and narrow as he is, squirrel chaser Wesley E., a freshman at Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi, explained the rationale behind squirrel-chasing: “Well, it’s about tapping into our hunter-gatherer roots.” The boys once tried using walkie-talkies to aid in the chase, but, Wesley said, “It definitely didn’t work. We need to get back to our savage instincts.” He paused to reflect, then nodded his agreement.
Curious to know how these “savage instincts” manifest themselves, I joined Wesley and his fellow chaser, Belhaven freshman Felton M., on one of their hunts.
We walked to the park in the early afternoon, though Wesley had told me before that “morning is the best time for squirrels.” Still, I saw no lack of bushy tails as we approached. Felton led with a purposeful step, shoulders squared and thumbs hooked in the straps of his backpack which was adorned with a piece of duct tape and a name-tag sticker beneath the embroidered “Achieving Compliance Together” logo. (I question whether “compliance” is really the proper word for what we were achieving.) We deposited our bags on a round concrete table in the scattered shade of a lichened live oak. Wesley rolled up his corduroy pants and removed his flip-flops. Felton was already moving stealthily away from the table, clutching his cell phone in one freckled hand. Several squirrels rooted busily on the lawn which stretched smooth and green under more massive oaks and pines.
I was left under Wesley’s direction. Clapping his flip-flops together, he watched Felton attentively. Nods and hand motions passed between them – as Felton said, “Constant communication is vital in squirrel chasing.” They singled out a squirrel isolated from other squirrels and at a distance from most of the trees. According to Felton, “Squirrels work together, so you have to catch the squirrel by itself.”
In a mumbled sort of whisper, Wesley directed me to stand behind the nearest oak tree, while he skirted around to a tree on the far side of the squirrel. Felton, his face firm with determination, skulked behind a pine tree opposite me. The boys agreed his New Balance shoes were best for their work “in acorn infested ground.” As Wesley walked away, he gave me parting instructions: “When I get over there, you just start walking forward – don’t come out until I get there.” I waited obediently.
Felton later explained, “The most important part of squirrel chasing is the set-up.” He emphasized his point with a downward slice of his hand. “You have to outwit the squirrel and cover every option. The more people you have the better.”
“That depends,” Wesley interjected slowly, “they have to be smart people.”
“No stupid people,” Felton nodded. “And you have to work together.”
“We’re cutting off options,” Wesley paused, open-mouthed, to gaze fixedly at nothing. “Cutting off options is the main thrust of our attack.”
“Cutting off options” means blocking all the trees the squirrel is likely to try to climb, because, as Felton said, “You can never run as fast a squirrel can climb.” So we positioned ourselves at strategic trees around the squirrel. When Wesley reached his position he stepped out from behind his tree, I stepped from behind mine, and Felton stepped from behind his. With deliberate steps, we advanced on the unsuspecting Sciurus carolinensis. It was not unsuspecting for long: its nervous eye caught motion from Wesley’s direction, and it scurried towards my tree, only to discover me in its path. Desperately, it turned toward Felton’s tree, but was blocked that way too. It paused.
In Felton’s words, “The great thing is when you can see the fear in the squirrel.”
Wesley expounded, “When the squirrel stops, you know you’ve got him.”
Our squirrel did not stop for long, but began a frenzied dash for safety. Felton and Wesley raced toward it. Felton hurled a piece of brick, driving the rodent to Wesley who dove, narrowly missed the squirrel, and ended up sitting on the ground. The squirrel retreated up a pine behind him.
“That was awesome!” Wesley grinned. “I almost had him, but my lanyard was wrapped around my hand.”
As yet the boys have never actually caught a squirrel, but they are not discouraged.
“It’s about the thrill of the chase,” Wesley stated.
“Yeah,” Felton joined in, gazing profoundly into the distance, “the rationality of squirrels is similar to the rationality of women; so chasing squirrels is like chasing women. Only less dangerous.”
“When you chase squirrels, you might lose a couple of fingers,” Wesley explained, twirling his lanyard again, with all his fingers in tact. “But when you chase women, you lose your heart. And you have ten fingers, but only one heart.”
If their women-chasing methods are similar to those they employ in squirrel-chasing, the boys are likely to lose their hearts.
All persons and events in this story were drawn directly from life. My readership will be interested to know that both gentlemen are now happily married. They each still possess all ten fingers, and, as far as I know, have never yet caught a squirrel. Draw your own conclusions about their hearts.
Story first published as “Squirrel Chasers” by Stacy Nott in Belhaven College’s Brogue 2008